A Few Words

blog post
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Sometimes a few words have enough impact to get you through the day.
Complete conversations aren’t always necessary.
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A high school at which I substituted had a large minority of students who did not have English as their primary language. Interrupters were hired to help students integrate and learn English.

Two of the classes in the regular teacher’s schedule were not even close to my skill set or training – plant technology. When one is working as a sub, there is some financial necessity involved, so we didn’t always take subjects we knew best. However, his other three classes were in my skill set – math related.

The regular teacher’s prep period was second period, so I was reading in the classroom next to the greenhouse when students entered nearly en masse. Most were in student volume speaking something I recognized from far in my past – Russian. The bell rang and ‘we have a sub and we’ll never see him again’ conduct continued.

I spoke loudly, “Dobroye utro [good morning]! Sadites’ pozhaluysta [Be seated please]!” Most went silent. Their sudden change in demeanor told me I had their attention.

A male student who seemed to be a group leader of sorts stood and in testing posture said something I didn’t understand at all. To which I replied, “govori medlenno, pozhaluysta, potomu chto ya ponimayu i govoryu tol’ko po-angliyski [Speak slowly because I understand and speak only English].” To this day, I don’t know how the phrases popped out automatically.

Before there was more conversation in which I would be the loser, their interpreter came into the room. He glanced around the silent room and motioned me to him. He asked in a whisper about how I’d settled them, and I told him. Then he spoke to them in Russian saying more of what I didn’t understand. “And,” he said to me, “I took the liberty of telling them that they will never know how much you understand.”

Based on how they responded to the assignment I was supposed to give them, I knew their English was more than adequate for where they were. When the next class came in, many had accents, but they all spoke English. The same was true the next time I substituted at that school.


I used a similar routine when I was on lunch duty while subbing as a vice principal in a middle school. Several Russian speaking boys were not overly loud, but loud enough as I passed by their table. One was stirring what was on his tray and I recognized the word pomoi which means swill or slop in context.

I just said, “YA ponimayu tol’ko angliyskiy!” I of course don’t know if they continued in non-English other times, but they didn’t when I was on duty.

Several years later the one who challenged me in the high school class was a substitute interpreter at a middle school. I had casual contact with him and told him about faking it. He said he suspected, but never told his classmates.


Disclaimer: I flunked out of the Russian language program at the Army Language School in Monterey, CA, in 1959. But for whatever reason some phrases were still in the recesses of my brain 45 years later.
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